part 2: five brothers

The Last Flower Children Guard San Francisco’s Most Secret Garden


+ go back to part 1

On March 16, 1921, five brothers bought the parcel of land then known as Block 43, University Mound Survey. In those days San Francisco’s neighborhoods featured names such as Horner’s Addition, Outside Lands, Lobos Creek, Alms House Tract and Butchertown. Butchertown, just downhill and east of University Mound, was the sort of place that, not so many years before, the Chronicle had printed an account of a man named Charles Butcher, a butcher living in Butchertown, who testified at a trial for assault caused when another man wore his collar open without a necktie.

Already ripe with slaughterhouses and meat packers, Butchertown created still more business for rendering plants south of Hunter’s Point whose processors and furnaces made use of the discarded animal parts. “On hot days it stunk,” said Franco Mancini, a retired Federal Courts planner who lives on Woolsey Street less than a block away from University Mound Nursery. Mancini is also an amateur local historian who in 1997 founded Friends of McLaren Park, part of the Neighborhood Parks Council.

“Rotten meat—and melted bones from making buttons. Hearts of cows and tails and feet chopped off and brought to the dump. The stink was unbelievable. Too strong for even the flowers to cut,” Mancini said. “There ain’t a rose in the city that can overcome a rotting carcass.”

The five brothers, Ernesto, Vittorio, GioBatta, Andrea and Giovanni Garibaldi, were recent immigrants from Chiavari, Italy, a coastal farming community not far from Genoa. More than 20,000 Italians had arrived in San Francisco between 1880 and 1920. But while fishermen, traders and cannery workers famously took over North Beach, only 15 percent of the city’s Italian immigrants were in the fish industry, according to Dino Cinel’s comprehensive study From Italy to San Francisco: the Immigrant Experience.

Most were farmers. 90 percent of farming Italians settled in the southeastern districts, one third of these in southern Bayview and another 45 percent in Portola — or as it was then known, University Mound.

“When they came from Italy they were poor, but in Italy the land they did have they were growing,” said Angelo Stagnaro, Jr., current president of the SF Flower Growers Association. “Before they were in the flower business they were farming. They were looking for land mostly.”

Hot meat winds, steep hills and its distance from downtown had isolated University Mound and kept the area mostly undeveloped countryside until the 1920s, but the land proved ideal for growers.

On Block 43 the Garibaldis drove timbers deep into the soil to erect a wood framework of whitewashed glass conservatories that housed roses and carnations. The brothers drew water from artesian wells below the earth and took advantage of the district’s near year-round sunshine to build University Mound Nursery into a successful flower business.

In total, 19 separate nurseries went into operation in Portola in the 1920s, most with their own unique crop. Gemignani, Ferrari, Winant, Restani. Begonias, orchids, azaleas, lilies. The hills ceded their emptiness to rising greenhouses and fields of stock marigolds.

“I think most people don’t understand that in the Portola there were a lot of these,” said Rayna Garibaldi, Ernesto’s granddaughter and author of San Francisco’s Portola, an excellent resource for photographs from the period.

At first growers sold the cut flowers on street corners downtown. “One market sprang up around Lotta’s Fountain [at Kearny and Market],” writes Amy Stewart in Flower Confidential, “because growers liked easy access to water.”

Intense competition led the Italians to incorporate the SF Flower Growers Association in 1923. With help from Amadeo Giannini’s Bank of Italy (now Bank of America), they opened a wholesale headquarters at Fifth and Howard.

Congress’s Immigration Act of 1924 further shaped the city’s budding flower industry in two ways. Italian immigration dropped significantly, stabilizing established growers who no longer had to share the marketplace with European arrivals. (“We were the originals,” Stagnaro said.) And new laws limited business- and land-ownership rights of “Asiatics,” the Japanese and Chinese who, growing their blooms in the western reaches of the city and just as organized, were the Italians’ chief competitors in the flower market.

The Garibaldi brothers married, had children, and the children joined their workforce. “You had to work to be included in the share [of the business],” Rayna Garibaldi said.

Franco Mancini, who also spent his childhood in the nurseries, working for Restani, recalls riding a truck through darkness to the bustle of the flower market floor at 4 a.m.

Flower jobs brought workers and residents to the area, lined dirt lanes with growers’ and their employees’ houses. “You’d think they were coming out of a popcorn maker,” Mancini said. Shipyard workers followed. Soon the area was a real neighborhood, no longer a territory.

By 1956, when the wholesale flower terminal transferred to an expanded lot at Sixth and Brannan, where it still is, $35 million in cut blossoms moved across its floor every year, or nearly $300 million in 2010 dollars. National and international flower expositions came to San Francisco, and San Francisco’s blooms were trucked out all over the state. The flower crop was fast replacing gold as the city’s most celebrated export.

And then something happened that shifted the city’s identity for half a century.

It’s not entirely accurate to say Portola’s nurseries were responsible for the Flower Child generation. When Allen Ginsberg coined the term “flower power” in How to Make a March/Spectacle, he meant the symbol as an alternative to both repressive power of police batons and militarism by other resistance movements. Tulips not tear gas, daisies not napalm.

Flowers are often gifts; they are delicate, fertile things; natural heralds for the conduction of free love. Flowers are also angiosperm fractals that come in many colors. They suited the psychedelia of the moment.

But if the radicals gave away blossoms to spread peace and generosity, or simply tied them in their hair, growers and wholesalers were in it for the money. Nurserymen may well have enjoyed their petals’ living beauty. Still, flowers were a business; a form of capitalism not kindness.

Then again, it is impossible to ignore that many of those flowers that gave San Francisco’s counterculture its signature in story and in song must have come from the wholesale market — stocked primarily with stems grown in University Mound Nursery and the other local greenhouses.

In August 1978, the Chronicle interviewed Charles Leveroni, “one of the oldest wholesalers,” in a portrait on the predawn flower market scene. Leveroni had been selling at the market since it opened 23 years earlier, he said, and in the flower business 58 years. Looking back he missed how the “flower children came dressed in their brightly colored outfits” to buy loose-stemmed bunches for handing out on Market Street.

“They were a real nice quality of human beings,” Leveroni told the newspaper.

High times for San Francisco and its flower culture. One of the powers of the University Mound Nursery is it testifies to the erasure of that glory.

continue to part 3 +

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